I’ve had the new Social Distortion album, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, for a while now and I still feel pretty conflicted about it. I like Social Distortion and I’m always happy to find out that they’re still able to make a living playing some of the most unassuming rock ‘n’ roll to ever grace the playlist on KROQ (for those of you who live outside of Los Angeles, KROQ calls themselves “World Famous” and the reason you’ve never heard of them is because they only play southern California bands, usually the worst ones. Think Papa Roach, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and 311). But here’s what I can’t decide – is Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes mediocre, really fun, and therefore close enough to “good” that the decent thing to do is round up? Or is it trite, cheesy, and a sign that Social Distortion is not aging well at all? To put this question to bed once and for all, I’m gonna argue with myself about it and you’re (hopefully) gonna draw your own conclusions from the evidence presented.
First off, Mike Ness’s voice still sounds good (well, okay, he was never gonna duet with Pavarotti, but his voice still sounds good for what it is). I put this on alongside their 1990 classic Social Distortion and there’s no drop-off in his vocal quality at all. If anything, his range has improved a bit. And Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes features some pretty nice harmonies and – a first – female backup singers.
But then look at what Ness is saying: “Can’t Take It With You” is yet another rock song about how you can’t take your money and things with you when you die. I agree with the sentiment, but it’s been said a billion times by a trillion bands. And what the hell is “Diamond in the Rough”? Is Social Distortion doing power ballads now? God help us if they end up on a Super Bowl halftime show with Aerosmith. And not one but two songs about California? No wonder California is in such a crisis; sometime in the 1990s, the state just crawled up its own ass and started writing songs about itself. Enough is enough. California can keep “California Uber Alles” (because Jerry Brown is governor again) but no more fucking songs about California. If you want to write songs about a state, you can write about Idaho. They don’t have any songs.
Two things: 1) I agree with you, Me, about the whole California song thing. Way outta hand at this point but 2) Social Distortion has always wallowed in rock ‘n’ roll cliché. You think “Ball and Chain” is all that original? Of course you don’t. But you do think it’s awesome, largely because it is awesome. “Story of My Life” tiptoes right on the borderline of Saucy 1950s Homage and Brian Setzer, and I know for a fact that you love that song. Social Distortion doesn’t have a Joe Strummer or a Craig Finn – but Mike Ness has always worn his record collection on his sleeve (Johnny Cash is like half of it). And the first time I heard “Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown”, it reminded me just a little of “Melt with You” by Modern English (just a bit). So at least Ness is mining from a new decade.
Okay, but if you’re defending Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes by saying it’s not that different from Social Distortion, isn’t that a bad thing? That album is 21 fucking years old (and Social Distortion famously takes up to nine years between new releases)! They couldn’t think of anything new to do in 21 years? And the new one clearly has ballads! “Diamond in the Rough”, “Bakersfield,” and “Writing On the Wall” are clearly pop ballads. With keyboards and everything. Fucking keyboards! And how many more times am I gonna hear the line about “if you love someone, let them go” in a goddamn rock song? Does the Big Book of Trite Sayings come with your first record deal?
So if I understand me correctly, the biggest hurdle Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes has to clear in order to be considered a good album is that it’s bogged down in some serious cliché. Let’s reconsider “Can’t Take It With You,” which (I agree with you on this point, me) is the worst offender of the bunch. Yes, what Mike Ness is saying has been said so much that it should be legal to kick people in the crotch for saying it, even if they somehow do it by accident. But let’s consider how he’s saying it – loudly, and with awesome, gospel-y backup singers. Also, that’s a nice piano solo in there, which is a bit of an innovation for Social Distortion. That’s gotta count for something. And if you want extra points in the “good” column, let’s talk about the guitar playing on Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes. Because Mike Ness and Jonny Wickersham pretty much rip it up all over this record. “Bakersfield” may be a ballad, but that intro is catchy as hell. In fact, like most Social Distortion albums I’ve heard, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, whatever its faults, still makes me want to plug my Les Paul in and seriously piss off the nice old guy who lives downstairs.
You know what, Me? I think you might have me convinced. Maybe Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is a pretty good record after all. There are plenty of the melodic hooks that I want in a Social Distortion album, and the fuzzy guitars even make the power ballads palatable. Sure, it’s not exactly a great leap forward for the band, but neither is any given AC/DC album and I have a gigantic soft spot in my heart for those guys.
Gosh, that’s awfully kind of me to come to some agreement with myself (without coming to blows, like we usually do) about Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes. Although I’m not sure the verdict ever really stood a chance of coming down against Social Distortion. The more I listen to this album, the more I realize that I just like them as a band – not a guilty pleasure, but a simple one. Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes won’t define a generation, but it does a pretty satisfying job of defining “meat and potatoes” rock (you could grill a steak and mash a potato on “Bakersfield’s” opening riff) and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that.